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How a multi-billion dollar federal investment in climate-smart ag might benefit Vt. farmers

A photo showing goats in a field, with a cow in the foreground
Rachel Tobler
Vermont Public
Goats and a cow mingle at Ice House Farm in Goshen, Vermont. The operation uses rotational grazing, a regenerative agriculture practice that can improve soil health, increase biodiversity, reduce erosion and store carbon.

It’s a warm, sunny afternoon at Ice House Farm in Goshen. Inside a fence, a herd of happy goats and a playful young cow are grazing on green grasses.

Chad and Morgan Beckwith, who have owned the farm for about six years, specialize in goat cheese and yogurts.

To nourish their animals, the couple employs a practice called rotational grazing. It consists of keeping grazing livestock in smaller areas and allowing them to graze that land entirely before moving them to another section of pasture. This allows land to recover from grazing before it gets grazed again.

It helps to maintain soil health, stores carbon, increases biodiversity, and decreases erosion.

More from Vermont Public: Summer School: How to listen to the land

It’s a farming technique that falls under the umbrella of regenerative agriculture, and it’s increasingly being touted as something that can help in the fight against climate change.

In the U.S., agriculture accounts for about 11% of of the country's greenhouse gas emissions.

Serge Wiltshire, a postdoc at the University of Vermont Food Systems Research Center, studies how different land use practices affect the amount of carbon stored in the ground over time. He says the data shows switching from conventional practices to regenerative ones can store a lot of carbon.

"And the trajectory of that change actually enfolds over 100 years or more," Whiltsire says. "So it ends up being a good long-term solution."

Wiltshire says his research also shows the results happen relatively quickly and appear to last.

"The biggest change actually happens in just the first few years after you do a big management change, like if you change from a cropping system to a pasture system, for example," he says. "You’ll see the biggest gains in the first few years, and then that rate of change will actually slow down over time, but it will still continue to over a-hundred-years-or-more time frame."

"You're growing grass, you're raising a bunch of animals ... you're doing all these things, and you have to also be hunting for grants and all these programs."
Morgan Beckwith, co-owner of Ice House Farm

Still, for farmers wearing many hats, it can be a lot of work to piece together enough money to make regenerative practices work at the farm.

"You're growing grass, you're raising a bunch of animals ... you're doing all these things, and you have to also be hunting for grants and all these programs," Morgan Beckwith says. "Chad is really good at that. That is what he does at 5 o’clock in the morning for fun, and he has alerts set up and keywords and stuff."

The Beckwith's are hopeful a boost in federal funding through the USDA — almost $20 billion dollars — could help.

Ryan Patch, the agriculture, climate and land use policy manager at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, says the money should be available soon.

"From what I understand, there are a number of program areas that will receive enhanced funding over the next four years to five years, that will really help Vermont farmers continue to adopt and implement climate-smart agricultural practices, through a number of different federal conservation programs," he says.

Hand holds dark black soil.
Rachel Tobler
Vermont Public
Lisa McCrory holds her compost in her hands.

At Earthwise Farm and Forest in Randolph, two large cows destroy apples in one bite. Owner Lisa McCrory employs regenerative farming practices like planting cover crops in her garden beds and composting. The cover crops help prevent erosion and maintain soil health.

"Regenerative is more than sustainable," McCrory says. "Sustainable agriculture used to be a thing, or a name, and it kind of just made it sound like staying on an even keel. I like regenerative because to me it sounds like life is carrying life. So, if we add life to our practices, then the life we are invigorating the land with is going to carry us forward to the next thing that we are going to do. And to sustain our family and maybe more families over time."

And possibly help the climate.

This story is a collaboration between Vermont Public and the Community News Service. The Community News Service is a student-powered partnership between the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program and community newspapers across Vermont.

Rachel is a senior at the University of Vermont studying environmental science with a double minor is geospatial technologies and reporting and documentary storytelling. Originally from Denver, Colorado she loves to do all things outdoors. Her favorite activities are skiing and biking.

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